The Dangers of Reading Henry James and Jane Austen at the Same Time

264I have ended up really disliking “Portrait of a Lady.” I am listening to it, and although Flo Gibson is an excellent narrator (narratoress? should we collectively agree that that should be a word? Or would that be stupid?), I’ve ended up really getting annoyed with Mr James.

What I have shouted at my headphones, again and again, is “will you please get on with it!” Every single time two characters interact with each other, it’s like he has to spend half an hour explaining their opinions of each other, their worldly success, their perceptions of wealth, power, freedom, democracy, and cheese, and their relative weights and thoughts on the rise of the printing press in the middle ages. Seriously, James spends so much bloody time in asides and explanations that there were moments when I genuinely lost track of who exactly was talking to whom. And there would only be 2 people in the scene.

18619998This may have been more palatable, if I had not been re-reading “Pride and Prejudice” at the same time. And also George Eliot’s “Adam Bede.” As an aside, Eliot does the “explaining the mind at work behind the action” much better than James, faster, more directly, and with more humor and sympathy. But the important thing is the fact that Austen’s magic is to put characters in a room together and show their souls through conversation and occasional brief authorial commentary.

In fairness, I’m near the end of “Portrait” and James is finally starting to let people actually talk to each other. But I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to overcome comparing him to Austen and finding him verywanting.

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Walking Out of the Book to the Screen

thIt doesn’t happen often. When it does, it’s both thrilling and frankly strange. But every time a book is turned into a movie or a tv show, there are a few characters–maybe only one or two–who somehow walk out of the book and come to life on the screen.

It can’t be easy, as an actor, to try to personify a book character. The character has already been filtered once through a write, then through a screenwriter or three, then through a director. And that’s the bare minimum. Interpretation is a necessity.

But sometimes, the actors don’t seem to be interpreting the character. Sometimes they just are the character.

When exactly this happens depends on a lot of factors. If the original author was too good, the actors have an impossible job: they must interpret the character. Jane Austen characters are almost completely unable to walk out of books. The closest I know of is Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennett, and even that one is questionable.th.jpg

 

 

Sometimes, you get a fantastic author and fantastic characters. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell had almost half the characters escape the book. Not Norrell or Strange themselves, but Childermass, Stephen Black, Lady Pole, Lord Wellington, Mr Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot all walked directly out of the page. Vinculus isn’t quite the same on the show, but I found when I re-read that he had somehow walked into the book, and the actor appeared to be speaking from the page to me.

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Often I have found that minor characters are more likely to talk out than major ones. On The Expanse, Holden and Miller are more interpretive but many of the minor characters are uncannily perfect portrayals.

Every once in a while, there is an actor who nails it so perfectly it’s scary. The Jane Eyre of the 1940 version, and the Mr Rochester of the 2011. Mrs Thornton in North and South. Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit movies.

There’s a magic to seeing an actor interpret a character. The choices they make, the inflections they give, the looks in their eyes: they can make you see a character in a way you never had before, can make you understand things you could never have reached on your own. But there is an uncanniness accompanying a perfect meld of character and actor, one that varies from viewer to viewer and is always captivating.

 

Jane Austen and Reader Perspective

thHow soon should the protagonist turn up? For Austen the answer was “right away” only with Emma Wodehouse. Fanny Price and Lizzy Bennett don’t appear in the first chapter of their novels. Anne enters only after her family is described in some detail. The situation of the family in Sense and Sensibility is the first thing to be described.

I didn’t realize how important this was until I had watched a few adaptations of Austen novels and noticed something interesting: when a film opens with a shot of the heroine, it is likely to be less “purist” than not. When it opens with the direct perspective of the heroine (see 1999’s Mansfield Park and 2007’s Persuasion) it takes even more liberties. But when it opens with the family, the community, it is more likely to take as many cues as possible from the book.

Until I had made this connection, I didn’t fully understand how important the setting is to Austen novels. The are not about a heroine; they are about how a heroine is functioning in a particular world. Establishing that world, be it the interaction of Mr and Mrs Bennett or the genealogy of Sir Elliot, is of central importance to an adaptation that wishes to capture some part of the soul of an Austen novel.

Kindness and Cruelty in Jane Austen

25597577Mr Bennett and Eliza Bennett love to see the absurdities in their neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. This makes for very entertaining reading: Mr Bennett egging Mrs Bennett on creates one of the most famous scenes in Western literature. Sir Elliot complaining about how ugly people in Bath are is perfectly ridiculous. Mrs Norris in her endless miserliness sometimes verges into becoming a satire of herself.

Though this makes for very lively and entertaining reading, there is a times an edge of cruelty to Austen’s depictions of absurdity. Both of Anne Elliot’s sisters say that “Anne is nothing.” Elizabeth Bennett, provoked by Mr Collins, allows him to humiliate himself and her family.

Austen clearly loves the society she writes about, but she also has no illusions about them. Fielding, in his interminable “Tom Jones,” says that people with great understanding need to learn forgiveness as well, because those who recognize the faults and limitations of others and that those others will never change can easily become cynics and disgusted with the entire human race. Austen balanced her cruelty–her cutting observations and uncaring villains–with a delicate and heartfelt kindness.

18619998This is one of those things that I learned by watching other people’s interpretations of Austen. In the two different versions of “Persuasion,” the first embraced Austen’s kindness, the second her cruelty. Characters who are pathetic and unfeeling in the earlier versions are cutting and nasty later. Sir Elliot is bumbling and careless in the ’90s version, angry and calculating in the ’07 version.

I have developed the opinion that it is probably impossible for anyone to fully bring to life this aspect of an Austen novel. The comic scenes can be comic, but to show cruel edges risks alienating viewers from characters–risks which Austen, with her freedom and talent, could take and overcome with apparent effortlessness. Elizabeth Bennett does not seriously consider marriage to Mr Darcy as attractive until she sees his beautiful property. Later, she actually spots this in her behavior and mocks it to Jane. But in the film versions, such a thing would make her seem too mercenary, too worldly. No one, truly, can match Jane Austen.

Why are there 5 Bennet Sisters?

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Let’s be honest: one of the fun parts of being widely read is editing novels in our heads. “Author A really failed to define this character properly,” “Author B really didn’t need this section where the character stays at yet another Inn (I’m looking at you Henry Fielding).” Personally, I like to take this critical editor’s eye to older novels, where editors operated differently then they do now. Victorians were clearly working in a bit of a different literary landscape, particularly when they were writing serials (Dickens, Gaskill, let’s be honest: did you need every one of those chapters?)

Having read “Pride and Prejudice” about 4 times in the last month (yes I’m obsessed, but what a wonderful obsession), I couldn’t help but poke at a few of the looser ends. Since we’re talking about Jane Austen, I had to start with the basic assumption that she is much smarter than me, so all of my questions must have an answer somewhere in the book.

The most striking “flaw’ in Pride and Prejudice is an overabundance of characters. A chunk of the characters, including Maria Lucas, Mr and Mrs Hurst, and Kitty, have no affect on the plot whatsoever. Take the Hursts: what purpose do the Hursts actually serve? They have absolutely no narrative function. They don’t do anything, which is why adaptations often leave them out. What they have is thematic significance, as an example of one of the many ways marriage can and does go wrong.

Another and larger question was: why are there 5 Bennett sisters? Kitty doesn’t actually do anything but cry over Lydia leaving and conceal information about her impending elopement. Neither of these things are actually necessary. And although each of the other sisters has a clearly defined character, Kitty is always just a parasite to Lydia.

That was where I realized I was onto something. Having 5 sisters of similar ages and identical situations in life should have been hard for a writer to juggle. But each of the characters comes out completely and utterly different, until mixing them up would be impossible. Each sister, coming from the same background of prosperous but neglectful parents, is left utterly to the development of their own character. They are in a perfect position for their selves to flourish.

Jane is kind and compassionate, always ready to see the best in others. Eliza is sensible and observing, comedic and judgemental. Mary is foolish and studious.Lydia is silly and small-minded.  Kitty…what is Kitty?

Kitty is a follower. She is, as I mentioned before, a parasite. Her oldest sisters were close, probably from a very young age. Mary doesn’t like anyone. Kitty thus had absolutely no one to turn to to exercise her instinct for flattery, enabling, and copying except for her younger sister Lydia. In a family where the parents paid attention to their children, Kitty would have been able to latch onto a governess or someone else. But Kitty is vulnerable in a way that no one else is.

She still serves no plot function. But in terms of psychology and human nature, the odd sort of hole that Kitty’s lack of independent characterization leaves in the novel makes sense.

Why I loved Pride and Prejudice

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There are, of course, a thousand reasons to love Jane Austen novels. They’ve been documented over centuries, by people from all over the planet. So here’s why I loved Pride and Prejudice: the characters.

They were just so incredibly real. Changing before my eyes. They acted and reacted throughout the book, in ways that were somehow both unpredictable and absolutely logical.

A great story is about people becoming different people, and oh is Pride and Prejudice a story like that. Elizabeth, the fantastic protagonist, is utterly altered as the story changes. She becomes aware of herself and the people she knows in entirely new ways. Darcy, of course, comes to view himself in a new light. And all the minor characters, who surface in the narrative and make ripples.

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Mr. Darcy and Indonesia

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Mr. Darcy’s sin is pride. He holds himself back. He isn’t interested in making new acquaintances. His aspect is reserved and unhappy.

If I had not lived in Indonesia, I could never have understood Mr Darcy to the degree I did reading Pride and Prejudice here. Because in Indonesia, they have the same opinion of introverts as they did in Austenian England.

Yes, Mr. Darcy is proud–but he is mostly just an introvert in a society where being social is the default position. At one point, someone even says that Darcy may seem arrogant, but he is very friendly and loyal among his close friends. But, after all, at that time in that society half the human race had little to occupy themselves with but gossip–someone who held back from that gossip would of course be stigmatized. Thus, Mr. Darcy is taken to be arrogant.

In Indonesia, being introverted had the exact same result. I was labeled as somboh (arrogant) because I would sit quietly at my desk in the teachers room and read, or seek a cool and place to be alone between classes. I would shut my door at night to rest, rather than settling on the porch with my neighbors. And language kept me from participating in gossip.

That’s not to say that I was shunned. I made many friends in Indonesia–many wonderful friends. My neighbors eventually adapted to my ways, and I don’t think they thought ill of me. But I was not popular. The teachers at my school did not like me. The immigration officials hated me and my arrogance. I left many good impressions–but most of these were with a hundred minor acquaintances, rather than in the communities I lived in.

Like Mr. Darcy, my discomfort manifested through a particular cultural lens and pride. And maybe, like Mr. Darcy, there was some truth to the accusation. Nonetheless, it is very difficult to be an introvert in a society of gossip and chatter.

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